In February, the CIPD submitted its response to the Government’s Green Paper and consultation Work, health and disability: improving lives. The Green Paper has far reaching proposals for how employers support people’s health as well as how the Government aims to halve the disability employment gap by 2020. Its scope is wide-ranging, quite rightly examining how effectively the health and welfare systems support people’s health, as well as the workplace.

From an employment perspective, it explores the critical role of promoting health, as well as preventative and rehabilitative support. In addition to reviewing existing initiatives, such as fit note certification and the fit for work service, the Green Paper examines new proposals such as changing statutory sick pay arrangements to encourage a phased return to work where appropriate, the role of insurance schemes in supporting prevention activities and protecting incomes, and mandating supportive conversations between an employer and individual who is off sick.

The CIPD response focuses on how organisations can provide more effective support for people with disabilities and health conditions to access and remain in work. In preparing its response, the CIPD convened two roundtables of its membership and other key stakeholders who provided invaluable insights and experiences to help inform our submission to the Government.

Key barriers

We need a considerable step change in employment practice relating to the management of people with a disability and/or health condition if the laudable, yet aspirational, aims set out in the Green Paper are to be realised. Just 8% of employers have recruited a person with a disability or long-term health condition for over a year, a stark indication of the extent of the barriers that continue to hinder employers recruiting and retaining the talent of disabled people and people with health conditions. These barriers are manifold but some of the most significant ones include:

  • Employers’ and line managers’ lack of awareness, knowledge and understanding of disability and the many different types of disability and health conditions that may affect people in many different ways, in particular knowledge about reasonable adjustments.
  • Misconceptions and unconscious bias on the part of employers and managers in relation to recruiting people with a disability and/or health condition. Many (particularly small) employers and line managers are unlikely to have had previous experience of recruiting or managing someone with a particular disability before.
  • Lack of training for line managers. CIPD research consistently shows that, while employers increasingly recognise the vital role that line managers play in supporting employees with health issues, most are not giving them the tools they need to manage absence and health issues effectively.
  • Not enough open and inclusive working environments to support the effective disclosure of a disability and/or health condition, particularly in relation to mental health.

How can we bridge the gap?

Despite the enhanced awareness of workplace health issues and the widely acknowledged business case for taking action, CIPD research also shows there remains a stubborn implementation gap for health and well-being initiatives, and disability confident practice, at work. In responding to the consultation, our key recommendations on the Government’s proposals are to:

  • Launch a major, ongoing and well-resourced publicity and education campaign to raise awareness and encourage a culture of inclusion among employers that is broader than, but aligned with, the Disability Confident campaign.
  • Establish a ‘one-stop shop’ for employers to make it easier to navigate the many sources of information, advice and guidance already available.
  • Re-design the Statutory Sick Pay framework so that it can support employees make a more effective and sustainable phased return to work.
  • Allow other allied healthcare professionals to sign fit notes and undertake an in-depth review of how the fit note operates.
  • Improve the Fit for Work Service to increase take-up, for example by shortening the referral period for employers, changing the current limit on the number of referrals, and including resources for more preventative and targeted occupational health advice.

Disability Confident

We welcome the three-level structure to the scheme and its extension to retention as well as recruitment practices. There was consensus in one of our roundtables that, in principle, it covers the right issues and offers a simple and accessible framework for employers of all shapes and sizes to improve their confidence and competence in recruiting and developing people with a disability.

However, some concern was expressed that the scheme does not yet have the profile or credibility needed to encourage a step change in how employers recruit and retain people with a disability. Further, as evidenced by the insights from both our roundtable discussions, we believe that awareness of the scheme is very low.

Therefore, there needs to be much greater promotion of Disability Confident by the Government as part of a well-funded national campaign, in collaboration with employers, and relevant special interest group and stakeholders. This should include clear guidance on its key features, what the three tiers mean in practice and how participation will help employers to further their business and diversity goals.

We also asked our Roundtable participants about their views on the Government’s plans to set up a ‘Disability Confident Business Leaders Group’ who will work alongside ministers and officials to increase employer engagement around disabled employment, starting with FTSE 250 companies.

While welcoming any initiative that encourages very large private sector companies to lead by example, we have some reservations (also expressed by our roundtable participants) about simply trying to mirror the approach of the Women on Boards FTSE work. The Lord Davies review, now the Hampton-Alexander Review, focuses on using voluntary and business-led targets to improve gender balance at the very top of organisations but halving the disability employment gap requires a much greater ‘whole organisation’ approach to building diverse and inclusive recruitment and retention practices.

We would welcome more information on what action is intended to accompany the Disability Confident Business Leaders Group. For example, will FTSE 250 companies use procurement to cascade good practice via their supply chains; otherwise we are not confident there will be an automatic transfer of ‘good practice’ beyond the FTSE 250.

Our London roundtable participants also expressed concern that disabled people should be closely involved in this Disability Confident Business Leaders Group, if they are not already, in order to develop appropriate and credible aims and action plans, bringing their experience to bear on what is likely to work on a practical level. Further, many participants in both our roundtables also felt that this initiative would need to be broadened to include a wider field of employers, including the SME sector.

Moving forward

As the voice of a worldwide community of over 140,000 HR professionals working in the fields of people management and development, our members have the potential to play a pivotal role in helping to achieve a much wider and more sustainable integration of health and well-being and disability inclusive practices at work. Affecting the necessary cultural and practical change in organisations to help halve the disability employment gap by 2020 may start with the core of our HR membership, but our reach goes much further in terms of influencing wider management practice in organisations. Given that responsibility for supporting employees with a disability and/or health condition on a day-to-day basis is likely to be devolved to line managers in most organisations, this wider reach is essential.

We believe that UK workplaces can play an important role in improving people’s health and well-being and supporting people with a disability through a range of activities including:

  • health promotion and ill-health prevention activities
  • early detection of some ill-health symptoms
  • effective reasonable adjustments
  • robust policies and practices in areas such as absence management, disability leave, inclusive recruitment, rehabilitation, return to work, etc
  • open working environments that support the disclosure of a disability and/or health condition
  • training for line managers so that they are competent and confident to manage and support people with a disability and/or health condition
    encouraging lifestyle changes.

About the author

Rachel Suff, Senior Policy Adviser, Employee Relations

Rachel Suff joined the CIPD as a policy adviser in 2014 to increase the CIPD’s public policy profile and engage with politicians, civil servants, policy-makers and commentators to champion better work and working lives. An important part of her role is to ensure that the views of the profession inform CIPD policy thinking on issues such as health and wellbeing, employee engagement and employment relations. As well as conducting research on UK employment issues, she helps guide the CIPD’s thinking in relation to European developments affecting the world of work. Rachel’s prior roles include working as a researcher for XpertHR and as a senior policy adviser at Acas.

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